On 18 January, the Indonesian parliament declared that it would be moving its capital from Jakarta to a new city called Nusantara on the island of Borneo. Jakarta is situated on the island of Java and currently hosts about 10.9 million people. The Java island alone hosts roughly 60% of the total population of Indonesia and more than half of its economic activities, despite Kalimantan being four times larger.
High population density, high risks of flooding, depleting groundwater, economic redistribution as well as Jakarta's long-term viability as capital were among some of the reasons cited by the parliament leading to this decision.
At around the same time, the Egyptian government has also decided to build its new capital 45 kilometres east of Cairo; its current capital is strangled by often immovable traffic attributable to the very ministries and administrative buildings situated there. The conditions in Jakarta or Cairo feel eerily similar to that of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.
Dhaka also faces gradually depleting groundwater (although not as bad as Jakarta yet), barely breathable air (AQI level consistently being among the worst in the world), polluted lifelines (rivers) beyond the hope of rescue and roads that seemingly remain clogged forever with traffic.
According to the Global Liveability Index 2021, the 400-year-old capital city of Bangladesh was the 4th least hospitable city in the world. Dhaka is simultaneously the 6th most densely populated city in the world, while Jakarta or Cairo are not even among the top 10.
A capital city should ideally have a population of 6 to 7 million whereas Dhaka currently has a population of roughly 21.7 million people. The excessive population has a directly adverse effect on the environment, from polluting the water we drink to the very air that we and our children breathe in.
When asked how overburdened Dhaka was as a capital, Dr Adil Mohammad Khan, Associate Professor of Jahangirnagar University said, "Dhaka hosts three or four times the population considered ideal for a capital city. In terms of infrastructure, Dhaka has three or four times less the infrastructure required to sustain a capital."
Dr Amanat Ullah Khan, a former Professor at the University of Dhaka, agreed with the sentiment.
"If you look at the more efficient capitals of the world like Moscow, Washington DC, they were pre-planned in a way to allow for necessary expansion. That is not the case for Dhaka. There is practically no place to expand anymore. So, it's overcrowded with insane traffic where it takes 3-4 hours to get from any point to another," said Dr Amanat Ullah.
The most problematic aspect of such overdependence on Dhaka is the saturation of economic opportunities. More specifically, investment in such crowded cities tends to exhibit diminishing marginal returns. That is, no matter how many metro rails, subways or elevated expressways are added into the infrastructure by the government, without decentralisation such investment will not bring about the intended outcomes in terms of generating revenue or employment opportunities in the long run.
This begs the question: since Dhaka can no longer function properly in this state, should we follow the path laid by Egypt, Indonesia, Myanmar etc. and move the capital away from Dhaka?
Dhaka still serves as the most strategically suitable location for a capital city in Bangladesh. Capital cities are of utmost importance as they protect the government in case of a foreign invasion and Dhaka being located in almost the centre of Bangladesh only reinforces that cause. At the same time, capitals serve as a melting pot where members of all regions can come and look for employment with ease. Capital cities are also used to exert control and project unity all across the nation.
For these purposes, it is generally recommended that the capital is geographically situated somewhere central to the country and for Bangladesh, there is no place better than Dhaka.
More importantly, different countries shift their capital cities for different reasons and it is foolish to blindly follow their lead. Indonesia is moving its capital city from Jakarta primarily because of its quickly depleting groundwater resources and high risk of flooding.
Other countries might change their capitals for political reasons. For instance, Egypt is shifting its capital because the military, which put the current government in power, stands to benefit from the construction and subsequent buying and selling of properties in the new city. Myanmar – a regime ruled by their military junta – also moved their administrative capital from Yangoon to Naypyidaw, mainly to shield the military regime from its people.
Moreover, it is extremely expensive to move the capital city from one place. For instance, it will reportedly cost Indonesia around $32 billion and Egypt around $45 billion each to rebuild their new capitals elsewhere.
To that end, Bangladesh will also have to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis before making any such drastic decisions. As Dr Adil says, "Uprooting the entire capital city is costly and being a lower-middle-income LDC, Bangladesh cannot afford such unnecessary investment right now. We should instead focus on administrative decentralisation."
That is, we should gradually decentralise our administrative sector to other regions that better suit the purpose of a said ministry or an administrative sector. For instance, the Ministry and Administrative offices on Agriculture can gradually move towards the North-western region of the country, generally considered the agricultural hub of the country. The Ministry of Industry and affiliated bureaus could move to Chittagong, as most export-orientated activities take place in that region.
Dr Amanat Ullah Khan agreed and believed that Bangladesh should move its legislative branch away from Dhaka as well, as he says, "The parliament building was nothing but a consolation prize from the then Ayub Khan government and is merely a relic of the past. So, it is better to gradually move the legislative branch of the government away from the city."
Apart from moving the executive and legislative branches of the government, there are other ways to release pressure on Dhaka. Countries like South Africa have more than one capital; its executive capital in Pretoria; judicial capital in Bloemfontein and its legislative capital in Cape Town.
Bangladesh could also declare additional business capitals on top of Dhaka being the administrative capital of the country, to release pressure on the capital while also attracting businesses to the new capital.
Besides that, business leaders often identify the lack of infrastructure, irregularities in power supply and voltage intermittencies as some of the reasons for not moving to other major cities in Bangladesh. Their complaints make sense given that only Dhaka and Chittagong currently have the capacity and proper infrastructure to attract businesses.
While shifting the entire capital city might be difficult, it is less expensive and requires fewer logistics to develop the essential infrastructures in other major cities to facilitate decentralised development.
Unfortunately, as far as the seventh and eighth five-year-plan of the government go, most of the mega projects of the government are either Dhaka or Chittagong-centric. Any targeted, well-thought-out decentralisation efforts on the government's part remain to be seen.
This 400-year-old city was put on life-support long ago. While megaprojects like metro rail, elevated expressway and underground subways may ease the pain, unless we move the boulders, i.e., the increasing economic and administrative pressure constricting its lifelines, none of these projects will save our beloved city from becoming an inhospitable hotchpotch of chaos and doom.